"I think my entire life has been leading up to this film," said Parvez Sharma, director of the documentary, "A Jihad For Love," which is produced by Sandi DuBowski, director of "Trembling Before G-d." "Jihad" details the five-year project Sharma undertook exploring the lives of Muslim homosexuals in Europe, South Asia, the Middle East, South Africa and beyond. It opened at the IFC Center in New York this Friday, and expands over the coming week.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This profile was originally published during the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, where the interview was conducted.]
"It's been a remarkable personal journey. It's been my own search for Islam and I have discovered so many things about my religion," said Sharma. "I did not know the profound struggle it takes to be able to exercise sexual choice when you are surrounded by religious dogma that basically condemns you to hell."
On getting access to explore the lives of gay Muslims, Sharma said, "As a Muslim director, I had to go back into my own communities. I was searching for my own Islam. I had to develop relationships of trust and understanding with each one of the characters to even get them to the point of wanting to share the personal aspects of their lives. I had to do this with a tremendous amount of responsibility as a Muslim at a time where Islam is under so much attack to make a film that would be deeply respectful of Islam."
As one might suspect, the project was not an easy one for Sharma. "Filming this film was very challenging and very interesting because the same Islam - the way I look - that makes me so recognizable in the West gave me a degree of protection when I went back in my own communities," he said. "So I had that invisibility but I was also dealing with governments who would have never given me permission - officially - to allow me to make this film if I had made a public request." In at least two instances he left tapes behind, ensuring the copies would be destroyed after he left. He would tape the beginning and ends of tapes with tourist-esque footage (which he acknowledges was no fun for his editor) and never take them on carry-on. "It served us well," he said. "While you're going to a place of relative safety as a filmmaker, you're leaving behind these gay and lesbian Muslims in their own communities. How do you protect them and what does that mean?"
DuBowski and Sharma met in January 2002 at a panel for "Trembling". Sharma approached him afterwards with his idea. Five and a half years later, DuBowski is serving as the film's producer. "Its really quite amazing," DuBowski said. "At the screening [at the film's premiere in Toronto], there was a man in the audience who got up in the middle." Worried he was not enjoying the film, DuBowski noticed as he passed by he was sobbing. Dubowksi followed him outside to make sure he was okay.
"He was just hysterically crying", said DuBowski. He had immigrated from Uganda and faced deportation to a country going through a huge anti-gay hysteria. He just kept saying, 'This was my story, this was my story.'" One can only imagine as the film expands to theaters throughout the country, that many more Muslim Americans will feel the same way.